Barque Press, 2017
Paperback, 40 pages
Reviewed by Lindsey Appell
“That it has come to this is your fault, you who know how to read this.”
So the reader of British poet Keston Sutherland’s eighteenth collection of poems, Whither Russia, is reminded at the end of “Instincts on Trump University,” a lengthy prose poem which, along with “Sinking Feeling,” bookends a page-number-less chapbook of translations. While hardly the only poem in the book to be the site of political commentary (one can hardly ignore the suggestive nature of the title Whither Russia), “Instincts” is the one to most formally resemble a political declamation. The accusation, which comes near its end, that “this is your fault,” compels a rereading of the entire collection, as the shifting “you” of the piece moves away from Trump and seems to stand still for a moment, fixing its gaze on a reader who has quite possibly positioned themself as a distant, intellectualizing observer of the recurring violence and injustice appearing throughout the book.
This gesture toward re-positioning and accountability is in keeping with the opening dreamscape of “Sinking Feeling,” with its constant return to what Sutherland at one point describes as the “Body intimated.” The body of the speaker intimates the violence around it, which in turn makes intimacy impossible:
The body was distraught and wanted to say why this was so but also it was trying to avoid talking about it in the way that the drowned do, as though it could only ever be tiresome and obnoxious to be dragged into a dialogue that might risk disturbing a surface of emotion always only just now at last ironed flat and placated like a baby who is a nightmare to get to sleep, and then not only because there were other people or bodies representing other people that narrowed in the usual way to an anonymous background to our potential but obstructed intimacy, lying around on the floor and fucking about distractingly in the background.
“Sinking Feeling,” appropriately, plunges into depths where boundaries are constantly in flux, where “[t]he locution Floor lockout” is “ thought over by the open border of the teller station in undrying acrylics nobody is denying is not real” and “memory lubricates oblivion.” In an ecstatic reaching toward an uncrossable boundary, and through the appropriately cross-genre form of lyric essay/prose poem, Sutherland carves out a liminal space where bodies, selves, and pronouns are fluid. A depersonalized violence is “rammed, like unknown faces” into the body of the speaker, who seeks a way of understanding the self’s position within this broken web of connection:
I broke we but, happy torn out of this gap in the stop throat’s head put on updated defamiliarization techniques to allow for, investigating new ways of navigating an increasingly commodified infosphere.
The “we” may be broken, but in spite of this fixation on the chaos and alienation inherent in our times, Whither Russia is not without humor. Sutherland’s translations, though strikingly fidelitous for a more experimental text, make room for ironies that avoid being excessively didactic by undercutting the dignity of their source texts, works by Verlaine, Goethe, and Hölderlin, among others. In particular, “Gautier’s ‘Buchers et Tombeaux’” re-contextualizes a Romantic pagan past within a world of injustice, greed, and sexual predation:
The monster in resplendent flesh
Disguised its unapproved real soul,
Innocent genitals still fresh
Went straight for every legal hole.
These moments often subvert the almost comically precise iambic tetrameter, a move which Sutherland makes a meta-gesture toward with the lines, “This voice imprints erected stone / With syllables that disappear.” Sutherland “updates” Gautier, in a sense, for a new set of cultural crises, with references to “Old Trump” who “denudes the NEA, / Citing the miscreant Piss Christ” and “The liberal MFA” which “makes rhyme / Counterrevolutionary.” Sutherland’s translations do not all feature this level of insertion of contemporary concerns; at times the liberties taken are more subtle, as in “Heine’s ‘Affrontenburg,’” where
Vermaledeiter Garten! Ach,
Da gab es nirgends eine Stätte,
Wo nicht mein Herz gekränket ward,
Wo nicht mein Aug geweinet hätte.
What a garden of shit that is
Where there is no credible corner
But what diligent psychosis
Scoops out as it patrols the border.
The imagery of the border persists, and what ties this seemingly disparate collection together—from dreamy explorations of the body’s connection to its “secret object”, to faithful renderings of German Romantics, to the straightforward moments that scream, ‘Yes, this is a response to Donald Trump, and Yes, the world is a terrible place right now’—is this concern with where boundaries and borders exist both in the world at large and within ourselves. What Sutherland, even at his most tongue-in-cheek, seems to ask of his reader is where do you find yourself when those boundaries are crossed, broken, or transgressed? And what role do you play in the breaking?
Lindsey Appell is a poet living in Idaho, where she is teaching and pursuing her MFA at Boise State University. Her current poetic interests include feminist (mis)translations of Anglo Saxon poems, rural experiences of queerness, and mental illness. Her work can be seen in The Oval, Scribendi, and saltfront.